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PUBLIC HEALTH ASSESSMENT

AMERICAN BEMBERG PLANT
ELIZABETHTON, CARTER COUNTY, TENNESSEE


SUMMARY

The American Bemberg (Bemberg) site is on the west side of Elizabethton Tennessee in a mixed industrial, commercial, and residential area. The company produced rayon from 1927 to 1977. After closure, some structures were demolished and waste disposal areas were closed. Land that fronts on Elk Avenue, a main traffic artery, has been redeveloped for consumer-oriented businesses. Parts of former Bemberg structures are used for light industrial purposes. The remainder of the site, northward toward the Watauga River, is the Cherokee Industrial Park, which is owned by the city and being developed for light industrial use. Several companies occupy buildings in the industrial park. Bemberg's former landfill and lagoons, now closed, and an inactive wastewater treatment plant lie within the park. The treatment plant had been constructed to eliminate substantive plant discharges into the river. Two ball fields were developed within the industrial park and were closed after a few years.

Elizabethton has a population of about 15,000. The closest residence is on property adjacent to the northeast corner of the site. The next closest residences are a few hundred feet east of the site boundary and also north, across the river. Groundwater is not withdrawn for either private or municipal potable water supply in the site vicinity. Johnson City withdraws water for municipal uses from the river at a point about 7 stream miles downstream of the site.

Site sampling data (Table 2, Appendix) were evaluated and several metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were found to be at levels of potential concern in certain soils, wastes, and other materials. Ambient air quality data associated with Bemberg's operations are not available and could not be evaluated. Many exposure pathways were considered (Tables 3 and 4, Appendix) on site and off site. The available data indicate that certain on-site workers and the ball players have been the most susceptible to exposure. Evaluations of available contaminant data and associated exposure pathways indicate that the site presents no apparent public health hazard to on-site and off-site populations. However, in the unlikely event that the planned industrial park use would be modified in the future to include residential development, additional investigations and exposure evaluations would be warranted beforehand.


BACKGROUND

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ATSDR, under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), conducts public health assessments for sites the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposes for its National Priorities List (NPL). In September, 1997, the EPA announced its proposal to include the American Bemberg site on the NPL. Therefore, ATSDR has, under its mandate, evaluated the public health significance of this site by considering whether health effects are possible and whether actions are needed to mitigate possible future exposure.

A. Site Description and History

Background

The American Bemberg (Bemberg) site is on the west side of Elizabethton Tennessee, on the south side of the Wautaga River (Figure 1). ATSDR has divided the site into four areas (Areas A, B, C, D; Figure 2) to facilitate discussions in this assessment. Bemberg manufactured rayon in facilities located in the central part of Area A and also in Area B from 1927 to 1977 using the cuprammonium process. Principal wastes associated with this process include copper, ammonia, iron, and various acids and solvents. Solid waste and some sludge were buried in an on-site, unlined, 11-acre landfill located in Area D. The landfill was closed and capped with soil in 1984 in accord with regulatory requirements. During early operations, wastewaters and unfinished rayon were discharged directly into the Wautaga River either through a pipe or through brick- lined open trenches. Discharge in the early years of operation was estimated at 12-13 tons of ammonia nitrogen and 700 - 1,150 pounds of copper per day. At least two fish kills (in 1955 and 1968) are thought to have been directly caused by the Bemberg discharge. On at least a few occasions, the ammonia concentrations in river water at the Johnson City potable water intake (7 miles downstream) were so high that withdrawal was temporarily stopped. In the 1960's, an unlined lagoon was constructed in Area D to receive unfinished rayon and also to treat wastewater prior to its discharge. A wastewater treatment plant was later constructed on site at the river (Figure 2) and was used by American Bemberg and by an adjacent former rayon producer to the west of the site (North American Rayon) that very recently terminated production. The Bemberg lagoon was closed and filled with soil in 1984, in accord with regulatory requirements (1,2).

After plant closure, Bemberg's facilities in Area A were demolished and new consumer-oriented facilities (e.g. post office, shopping, restaurants) and large paved parking areas were developed. Several former Bemberg buildings in Area B were sold to private owners; some have been converted (or may be converted) for light industry. For example, several companies lease space on the first floor of the Bemberg Industrial Center (BIC) building in Area B. The BIC is a large, multi-story, former rayon processing building. ATSDR staff observed that the BIC unit has a large, unused basement, which has a concrete floor, a few floor openings with underlying soil exposed, remnants of former processing equipment, troughs that once carried process wastes, a few small piles of soil-like materials, and miscellaneous debris.

The City of Elizabethton purchased the remaining part of the Bemberg property (Areas C and D), as part of its industrial development program and created the Cherokee Industrial Park. The city has sold or leased parcels on the eastern part of the industrial park (Area C) to companies engaged in commercial and light industry activities. The rest of the industrial park (Area D) is undeveloped. The city built 2 ballfields in Area D about 1990 and closed them 2 or 3 years later. Areas C and D will be developed solely for light industrial-type uses. Only surface-type uses will be allowed within the closed landfill and pond areas (e.g., no basements or excavation) because of underlying contaminated materials. Residential development will not be permitted. A few years ago, under an agreement with the state Superfund agency, the city initiated investigation and associated activities to decide whether further remediation will be needed on the industrial park properties. The investigation and evaluation activities are completed, but a remediation decision is being deferred pending the outcome of EPA's superfund activities (3).

Access to the entire site is unrestricted, except for the BIC complex which occupies part of Area B. ATSDR staff observed that a high, substantive fence with lockable gates surrounds the BIC complex and a security person was present.

B. Site Visit

ATSDR representatives visited the site and community on May 20, 1998. ATSDR publicized afternoon and evening sessions held at the city building to invite citizens to describe any health-related concerns they might have about the site. Two persons came to the sessions. Pertinent information obtained during the visit is described in appropriate sections of this document.

C. Demographics, Land Use, and Natural Resource Use

Land Use

ATSDR staff observed that the Bemberg site is in a mixed industrial, residential, and commercial area within the city boundary. A city park abuts the east property line. Sycamore Shoals State Park is on the river, about a mile downstream from the site. A high school is about ½ mile southeast of the property. A vacant hospital building is about ½ mile south.

Demographics

Elizabethton has a population of about 15,000. ATSDR staff noted that the closest residence is on property adjacent to the northeast corner of the site. The next closest residences are a few hundred feet east of the site boundary and also north, across the river.

Natural Resources

Groundwater beneath the site flows north to northwest. The surficial groundwater zone likely discharges into the river at the site boundary. Groundwater is not withdrawn for either private or municipal potable water supply in the site vicinity. The Elizabethton Water Department uses groundwater from three springs for its municipal raw water (1). All these springs are at a much higher elevation at least two miles from the site and are not influenced by site-related contamination. The nearest active private well is approximately two miles southeast of the property (1) and would not be influenced by groundwater at the site. A state employee reports that a potential public water source exists within 1 mile of the site and would be expected to produce as much as 8 to 9 million gallons of potable water per day.

The river receives surface water runoff and groundwater inflow from within its watershed and also receives discharge from multiple industries and municipalities. The river also supplies potable water to municipalities. The Johnson City Water Department withdraws from the river at a point about 7 stream miles downstream of the site. The river also is used for boating, swimming, fishing, livestock watering, and irrigation. (4).

D. Health Outcome Data

Government agencies routinely collect information on the health of the people within their jurisdictions. The federal government collects general information on the entire nation. Many state health departments keep registries of illnesses and diseases. Some county and local health departments also routinely or periodically collect health information. Concerned citizens and citizen action groups may also collect health information. This section describes the health databases that hold this information. The Public Health Implications Section discusses how these databases might relate to the site. Discussions of the available health databases follow.

In 1986, the state of Tennessee started a cancer registry that contains information about cancer types for the years 1989 through 1995. The state also keeps a birth defects registry that contains incidence rates for only three years, from 1991 to 1993, and vital health statistics and records of disease incidence. Records are kept on county and state levels. However, data and information for former workers and nearby populations are not available.


COMMUNITY HEALTH CONCERNS

As part of the site investigation, ATSDR held two informal, one-on-one public availability meetings on Wednesday, May 20, 1998, to learn about residents' site-related health concerns. Two residents came to the sessions. Residents questioned whether current health problems in area residents could result from contaminants in soil, and fish in the Watauga River. Cancers and scoliosis were among health concerns.



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